Adult Swim: A Republic is for Grown-Ups

“The middle class is still treading water, while those aspiring to reach the middle class are doing everything they can to keep from drowning.”

—President Barack Obama, 8 September 2010

Bad metaphors bring bad policies. During the Great Depression Americans were told that “the pump” had to be “primed.” Despite twelve years of pump-priming, F. D. R. did not bring America out of the Depression. Bipartisan tax cuts targeted against Truman’s “Fair Deal” did.

Roosevelt had also used the metaphor of “war,” but that analogy was brought to perfection in L. B. J.’s “war on poverty.” The image is problematic. Marines going into a battle, for example, want to know, as they are locking and loading, who the “bad guys” are, that is, whom to shoot. Who were the bad guys in the “war on poverty”? The impoverished? The rich? When President Obama took office a year and a half ago, the universal call from the Democrats was to pass a stimulus package in order to “jump start” economy. Is the American economy really an old jalopy whose owner would not dare go out for a drive without taking his jumper cables? Yet that image was invoked countless times without a trace of irony as the government was moving in to take over parts of the auto industry.

If bad political metaphors are not exposed, bad policies invariably follow. That is why one of the most important moments in the debate over independence was when Thomas Paine required the American colonists to rethink the idea of Britain as the “mother country.” Does a mother send an army to attack her young? Do not children eventually grow up? In deciding to become a republic, Americans chose not to have a permanent parent overseeing their every move and aspiration.

Having failed to “jump start” the economy, President Obama and the Democrats are moving onto a new metaphor. The people are “drowning.” Now this is an indisputably powerful image. Who would not throw a “life line” to a person who is drowning? Only the most unfeeling capitalist on his mega yacht (about the size of John Kerry’s) would let someone go down in the treacherous waters of the present economy. When examined closely, though, the analogy reveals more than the president knows.


First, the president speaks of “classes”: the middle class, those who want to be in the middle class, and so on. Though we use this terminology all the time, there is nothing in the U. S. Constitution about classes being singled out or owed anything. “Welfare” is connected to the modifier “general,” which means everyone. The Bill of Rights likewise protects the rights of either “the people” or “persons,” not classes. But in Obama’s swimming pool, people are permanently tethered together. Single persons do not move through the water according to individual ability or effort and are not encouraged to do so.

Second, these classes are never characterized as being swimmers, but rather drowners. When, according to Obama, have the American people ever been able to swim? That is a question some astute reporter should ask him during a rare press conference. During the Great Depression under F. D. R.? During Johnson’s war on poverty that was never won? Democrats never mention Carter’s abysmal one term, which is too like the present. Even the Clinton era is problematic since a Republican Congress forced the Empathizer-in-Chief to do things he was not naturally inclined to do. And certainly not during the horrible Bush years when unemployment was significantly lower than it is now. The fact is, to President Obama, America is and will always be a nation of drowners.

Finally, in Pool Obama the good swimmers are made to feel guilty about their talents and forced to stop swimming and help out all the drowners, whether that help is wanted or not. Michael Phelps must give up his Olympic career in order to become an instructor at the local Y for tots and for adults who never learned to swim because they were never required to. It is not enough for a good swimmer to inspire others to be good swimmers. Nor can the folks in the pool be counted on to teach each other out of love or profit. The officious lifeguard-in-chief must direct everything.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric of drowning does not hold water. Thirty years ago this November the nation elected a man who had actually been a lifeguard in his youth. He spent his summers watching over and saving lives. Yet this lifeguard in his political career looked upon people as individuals, not as belonging to restrictive classes, and upon the nation as a place of swimmers, in fact good swimmers. All they needed to be given was minimal instruction—by parents and parts of civil society, not the government—and a chance. Compare the Reagan economy to the Obama economy to decide whom you would prefer as the lifeguard—not the parent—of the republic.

Originally published at on September 16, 2010

Barack Obama and the Politics of Can’t

The most unsettling aspect of the Obama campaign is not a capitulatory foreign policy; not a plan for massive redistributions of wealth; and not even the apparent success it has had in suppressing revelations about and scrutiny of the more unsavory aspects of his character and associates. The most dangerous quality of his campaign is his use and abuse of language. Only through an adeptly sophistic use of language can he manage to sell a one-trillion-dollar transfer of wealth (quite likely only the first such transfer) as “a tax cut for 95% of all Americans.” Yet Obama’s use of language is not about one policy nor all of his policies combined. Neither is it a matter of mere academic concern. As Thucydides and Machiavelli and Orwell knew, and as every successful demagogue has found in practice, the manipulation of language is the real source of power in a true revolution, that is, in the attempt to change existing social, political, and moral norms. Through language people come to understand themselves. Through language human beings express their hopes and dreams. Through language we pursue the good and the beautiful. And through language we come to correct ourselves when we have made mistakes. When the skillful demagogue has come to take our language from us, however, when he has actually changed the meaning of words, we find it hard to articulate what bothers us about him and his agenda. We find it nearly impossible to call him to task. Once that level of manipulation has been achieved, the demagogue prevails not only in his own day but for decades to come, and historians even find themselves at his mercy.

In some ways Obama is doing nothing new. He comes from a long line of Democrat politicians who have pulled off similar sleights of hand and tongue. Obaman CHANGE draws upon the eternal springs of the “New Deal” and the “Great Society” that gave us misnomers like social security. The fear is, though, that Obama may surpass his predecessors precisely because he lives in a media age and is a media star. In the media age, actual words, still necessary, may not be as convincing as images. And Obama is the master of image. He is, frankly, cool. And America is thinking right about now that it could use a cool president. The only force capable of defeating him seems to be an equally cool, and much more genuine, vice presidential candidate, who is not just cool but loveable. But we still have to pay attention to the words that Obama uses to understand exactly what he intends to do with this country, or perhaps, to this country.

Pick almost any word from the Obama lexicon and you will find a betrayal of meaning and language: service, middle-class, community, organization, hope. Even change, his mantra, which he certainly would bring, does not constitute truth in advertising because the change with which he lures the American people is not the same change he has in mind. Americans don’t like radicals, and Obama is a radical. Even staunch abortionists find his actual record on abortion (the things he voted for rather than the things he said he voted for) extreme. Obama’s effectiveness cannot stem from his radicalism, therefore, but must derive from his ability to worm his way into the very American psyche that he has hated for most of his life and probably (does anyone know the real Obama?) still hates. To understand Obama’s success and his limits with the American people, let’s look at a seemingly innocuous word, yet ultimately the word that separates him most from what most Americans actually believe. That word is can.

Can is a subtheme to Obama’s campaign. Change took a back seat to can in the “Yes We Can” speech after Obama’s Oprah-aided victory in South Carolina. One of the Black Eyed Peas even wrote a song about the New Hampshire version of “Yes We Can.” Can, more than any other word I can think of, epitomizes the American spirit. Can is the child of the marriage between hope and resolve. Can opens up the world to the energetic and enterprising. Can can do. Can is human, to be sure, but it is also quintessentially American. Benjamin Franklin, the architect and embodiment of the American spirit of can, once wrote a pamphlet to the people of Europe telling them what sort of folks should “remove to America.” He was emphatic in saying that those who expect to come to America and not work hard are misled. Particularly gentlemen’s sons, used to a life of leisure and prestige, would not find things easy in the new country. America, wrote Franklin, is a place “where people do not inquire concerning a stranger, What is he? but, What can he do?” Franklin believed that individuals prove themselves not through titles or birth but through what they could and were willing to put their effort towards, through their capacity for can-do. The most obvious difference between Obama and the current Democrat party on the one hand and Franklin on the other, is that the former means precisely to define you according to what you are: by your race and, to a lesser extent, by your class, which they take as indelibly fixed. What can you do? What does that matter?

The lessons of the American can come to us in childhood. I remember being told about can countless times by my mother, who had been raised by two Depression-era parents from rural East Texas. My maternal grandfather, a mechanic, turned an auto parts shop into a modest fortune. He never went to college. My mother taught me about can by deploring its nemesis, can’t (rhymes with ain’t, for those of you North of Mason-Dixon). Whenever as a child I gave up, with the words “I can’t” as a sign of my surrender, my mother returned with, “Can’t never could.” Sometimes the enemy of success and hard work was even personified: “Ol’ Can’t? He never could.” She would usually add something about “elbow grease.” Americans even have a fable about the age-old battle between Can and Can’t, the Little Engine Who Could: “I think I can, I think I can.” Finally, with a lot of huffing and puffing, the Little Engine does.

These reflections would be nothing more than amusing anecdotes of childhood were not something very important at stake in this election. The thing Obama does not want you to know, the thing he can’t let you know lest you reject him outright, is that he is very subtly replacing the Politics of Can with the Politics of Can’t. The former sort of politics is the one that inspired our individual ambitions and made our country great. There is a real danger, on the other hand, that the latter sort would set about weakening individual ambition and tearing down our nation’s greatness. You see, the trick in “Yes We Can!” lies in who the “We” are. At first, “We” sounds like the American people. But the “We” in Obama’s formulation cannot possibly be the American people because if he believes that the American people can, it is hard to see why they need so much government help all the time. Obama’s “American people” are not the rugged individualists Franklin and Lincoln and Reagan had in mind. Look more closely at Obama’s “We” and you think you see the Democrat party. A sharper view takes you to the liberal wing of the party. Yet in truth, the “We” in “Yes We Can!” are really no more than a select group of politicians, activists, and bureaucrats who do not care very much for this country as it now stands but have big ideas about what it might become once they are in charge. And for this transformation to take place, Obama’s “We” (which is really they) need millions of willing accomplices, the seeming subjects of the “We’s” pity and patronage, the source of the “We’s” power, millions who agree on but one thing: that they, without the help of “We,” can’t. They can’t fend for themselves. They can’t think for themselves. They can’t even vote by themselves without the “We” driving them there and showing them how. They can’t be expected to pay taxes or bills on their own. They can’t go to college without the “We’s” help, which in monetary terms means your help. The real “We” sit atop the Obaman social pyramid, even above the “top 5 percent,” and the “American people” are the millions of drones needed to take the We, or really HIM, that high.

The Politics of Can’t preached by Obama is the abdication of personal responsibility, the surrender of the human spirit, and the transfer of all hope from one’s own inner resources (to say nothing of a forgiving God) to a cadre of cynical and sanctimonious politicians who have figured out how to prosper when people give up hope of doing for themselves. The Politics of Can’t is the chemistry of community organizing, and Obama’s virtuosity in it, in what Burke called “the petty war of village vexation,” has taken him to the verge of the White House. And the really frightening part about the whole scheme is that in order to pull it off, in order to answer the hopeless and mindless can’t, Obama has to bring in another seemingly innocuous word that he manipulates at will, the imperative must. Along with his favorite adjective redistributive, must cries out from his now famous 2001 radio interview. Since the people can’t for themselves, the government must. Everything follows from that principle: redistribution of wealth, abortion, opposition to real school choice, government health care; the list goes on. The must is not explained. The must is not to be questioned. But it clearly serves as a call to action. The must must get done by whatever means necessary. If must is achieved via the Supreme Court, great, though that way takes too long. If it is through elections, don’t forget, “We” also need the court to secure the victory.

The only way to beat Obama, then, is by serving his own words back to him. Strip them of their cover—carefully concealed and disguised as they are—by exposing their true meaning. This requires a special sort of political parsing and exposition of language. Senator McCain and Governor Palin have been doing an increasingly better job of that since Obama’s Joe the Plumber slip-up. It is time for Obama, now, to answer some questions about what he believes the American people can do for themselves and, indeed, what they ought to do for themselves. And it is time for McCain and Palin to begin reminding the American people of the long list of items Obama and, it seems, the Democrat Party believe they “can’t” do without the assistance of the government. It is difficult to imagine that such a list, when presented without the flowery assurances of demagogic promises, would not grate against the natural pride of every American heart. It is one thing if I say I can’t… it’s quite another when you tell me I can’t.

Again, the most horrifying portent of an Obama presidency is not that he might wreck the economy, invite attacks from abroad due to his inexperience and lack of faith in this great country, or even that he would appoint activist judges who will not leave the bench for a long, long time—though he would, most assuredly, do all of these things. The Founding Fathers built a nation that could, and that has, survived all these disasters. Instead, the most frightening prospect offered by this charismatic leader is that his pie-in-the sky promises and pandering politics will extinguish, in those who need it most, one of the most valuable qualities in man: the truly audacious hope in one’s own abilities to attain happiness through hard work in a land of liberty responsibly exercised. It is not implausible to imagine a young child, after years of an Obama administration, complaining to his mother that he “can’t.” He can’t do, he can’t learn, he can’t make something of himself. Will this mother respond, as my mother did, that “can’t never could,” or will she purr as she strokes that child’s head, “Don’t worry, child. You don’t have to. Barack and the government must do it for you.”? Ultimately, this is the question the real “we” must answer on November 4.

Originally published at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, October 2008.

The President, Not the Nation’s CEO

One important lesson from our history to remember is that the office of “President of the United States” is not meant to be the only chief executive in the nation. Let us reduce the office down to the size the Founders meant it to be and remind other chief executives of their authority and responsibilities.

The Framers of the Constitution, after much worried conversation on the matter, created a truly new type of head of state: not a king or a ruler, but an “executive” called a “president.” Though granting certain enumerated powers to the president, most notably that of being commander-in-chief of the army and navy, the Framers clearly limited those powers by giving him relatively short terms in office and making him removable by impeachment and accountable to both the Congress and the Supreme Court. Article II pales in comparison to Article I not because the president would have license to do anything but because it was understood that Congress would be deciding upon laws within the scope of that body’s likewise limited powers, and the president would be executing them.

When the nation’s first Congress was deciding upon the all-important matters of protocol and image, some senators were not satisfied with the plain title given by the Constitution to the nation’s foremost office. Vice President Adams pointed out that even “fire companies” and “cricket clubs” have presidents and suggested titles such as “His Elective Majesty” or “His Mightiness” as more appropriate, eliciting the sharp comment that Adams himself should be known as “His Rotundity.” But Congress stayed with the plain appellation “President,” whose very etymology suggests that the office presides rather than rules or reigns. As we all know, George Washington as president abandoned one of the titles he had carried during the war, “His Excellency,” and replaced it with the more business-like and down-to-earth “Mr. President.”

It is hard to remember in this multi-media-driven age in which we blame our every misfortune on the most visible representative of the nation — from natural disasters to imprudent business decisions on the part of multitudes — that the presidential office, like all of government, is supposed to have limited duties. For the most part, Americans are supposed to do for themselves and can do for themselves.

One of the last presidents who understood the office, the now undeservedly dismissed Calvin Coolidge​, once gave a speech to a group of boy scouts that is almost unimaginable coming from the mouth of Obama. After praising “reverence for law” and the “town meetings” he attended as a boy (not the kind where the President of the United States talks about national and international policy but the old fashioned kind concerning stopsigns and saloon licenses), President Coolidge​ explained the American way of self-government:

There is something in every town meeting, in every election, that approaches very near the sublime. . . . . I never address boys without thinking, among them may be a boy who will sit in this White House. Somewhere there are boys who will be presidents of our railroads, presidents of colleges, of banks, owners of splendid farms and useful industries, members of Congress, representatives of our people in foreign lands. That is the heritage of the American boy. (emphasis added)

What is remarkable about this speech, completely absent in the rhetoric of Obama, is that Coolidge fully counted on the local people (town meetings) doing for themselves precisely because there are other presidents in the land, almost or fully on a par with the president of the nation. Coolidge’s ideas about business — “the chief business of the American people,” as he said elsewhere — are a far cry from Obama’s “making government service cool again,” with himself high atop the federal bureaucracy, firing CEOs and upbraiding “greedy” bankers.

While Obama commands celebrity status, the presidential bully pulpit, and the mainstream media’s injudicious adoration, it is not easy to see what can be done to bring his power back down to earth. Until, that is, Americans regain their private-sector cool with Coolidge and realize that Obama is not the only chief executive in the nation.

In fact, he is not the most experienced chief executive in the nation. Nor is he the most tested chief executive in the nation. He is certainly not the most productive chief executive in this nation. And he is not, thankfully, whatever may be written for him on his teleprompter, the most articulate chief executive in the nation.

Obama was elected by 66 million citizens. The leaders of America’s major corporations have been elected, too, not only by their boards of directors but also by a much greater electorate: the American consumer, whose population is over 250 million strong. Not every American voted for Obama, but practically every American has eaten fast food and shopped in a Wal-Mart. Should Obama therefore be the only president in the nation to hold press conferences and town hall meetings on the state of the economy? Does he know the most or have the most true and compelling things to say about the economy? Should there not be some healthy competition between the two views of getting us out of this crisis: one that looks to government to solve all our problems, the other that looks to the productive capacities of free men and women pursuing their own hopes and happiness? If those two cases were made — the one by the President and his team of authoritarian advisors, having little or no experience in business, the other by the leaders of the great companies of our nation — which side would win the argument?

Imagine this scenario: A team of competent, popular, articulate CEOs of many of the nation’s great companies begin to hold press conferences addressing the current health and future prospects of their businesses. Would these CEOs not be obliged to address unambiguously the biggest roadblocks to future prosperity: high taxes, ridiculous levels of government regulation, massive public debt and its effects on available capital, and widespread uncertainty in markets? They owe this frankness to their investors, their workers, their customers.

Could Obama, with all the aplomb of his administration, really be able to respond weekly, and at times daily, to successful, articulate corporate leaders telling the public how things really work in the world of business and high finance? In this new battle in the long war between, not capital vs. labor, but business big and small vs. big, overreaching government, the leaders of business cannot stand by as spectators, continuing only to pour millions into lobbying, hoping either to avoid regulation or to receive a few scraps from the public table. They must take their case to the people. “Trust the people,” Ronald Reagan​ used to say, and so should business.

If Obama has his way, America’s business will never be business again. It will be bureaucratic, redistributionist, intrusive government. It is high time for some of these other presidents to speak up, take back their companies, and, in so doing, help ordinary Americans take back their nation.

Originally published on April 29, 2009.

Share the Health

President Obama​ and the Democrats in Congress cannot give you health.  Health is a human good given to you by God; subject to the laws of nature and the strictures of your own constitution; improved or worsened by your own choices and behavior; and aided or preserved, when needed, by recourse to medical treatment.  The Democrats are not able to give you health because they have not yet figured out how to assume the more-than-human powers of God and nature.

President Obama and the Democrats in Congress cannot give you medical care.  They cannot do so because they are not doctors or nurses.  Neither are they pharmacists.  They are no more trained in medical science than you are.  They have no insights into treating chronic diseases such as cancer or even how to cure your child’s whooping cough.  Going to the federal government for medical care is akin to going to the zoo when you need to buy a suit.  You may be entertained, but you will not leave with a suit.

President Obama and the Democrats in Congress can try to give you health coverage, or insurance, or they can coerce insurance companies to do so.  But they can only do so by forcing us all into the same crummy health plan, the so-called “single payer option” with the government ostensibly picking up the tab.  To make this plan even remotely financially plausible and to make things appear “fair,” they must treat everyone the same (equally badly), regardless of differences in age, physical abilities, spirit, and need. 

“Share the health” should be their motto.  Share-the-health, though, can only result in poorer health coverage, poorer health care, and quite likely poorer health for you and for all Americans.

You are the only one who can be truly in charge of your own health.  No one knows your own body, your own physical fitness, your own aches and pains and strengths and abilities, better than you do.  You know what triggers your headaches, how much sleep you need, how much fatigue you can endure, when you can “fight” a sickness with over-the-counter medicine and rest and when you simply must see a doctor.  No one has more of an interest than you do in keeping fit.  No one has more reason to avoid excesses and to “eat your broccoli.”  In short, no one has a greater interest in your own health than you.

That reason alone should suggest that you should be the one in charge of your own health care.  When you are truly in charge of your own health care you pay for it, like you do everything else you are in charge of.  And when you pay for things, you are usually economical in their use.  Your paying for your own health care will mean fewer trips to the doctor and less stress on the “health-care system.”

Recently I was suffering from poison ivy.  Had you been helping me pay for my health care, you can bet I would have gone to the doctor for a cortisone shot and some prescription ointment rather than clearing it up (over two awful weeks) with Caladryl and cotton swabs.  The difference is between the $120 that “we” pay vs. $6.50 that I pay.  Multiply that same choice millions of times over and imagine what would happen in a share-the-health health care system: millions of people going to the doctor when they could take care of themselves, millions of other people needing to see the doctor waiting in lines behind every hypochondriac.  Economy results in more health care to go around.

As we all know, there are people who do not take care of themselves.  They smoke, they drink, they don’t eat right.  They are more prone to contract diabetes or have heart failure.  They may be good people otherwise, but they are health risks.

You should not have to pay for the health care of those people.  It sounds cold and heartless, even un-Christian (the looming taunt of the liberal when dealing with social issues), but it is true.  You may be willing to drive them to the doctor.  You may be the friend who risks their anger by telling them they need to eat less, exercise, or give up fast-living.  But you should not have to pay for their health care.

Why?  Maybe it is because you are selfish and, if the market allowed, as a regular exerciser who eats right could get a better deal on health insurance.  Or maybe, just maybe, you would like those people who do not take care of themselves, not to have cheaper health care but instead to be healthy

Health is the primary commodity, not health care.  And the only other thing that might prompt those who do not take care of themselves to become healthy, other than the greater happiness having good health would bring to them, is having to pay for their own self-destructive behavior.  In any case, you should not be forced into subsidizing their unhealthy habits and choices.  Rather than being “guilted” into paying for everyone else’s health care, we should all wish to bring more personal responsibility into the system, not less, just as the Safeway health-care plan we have been reading about has given employees incentives to quit smoking and to slim down.  Healthier people mean more access to doctors for all.

If you pursue your own health reasonably well, without even being a fanatic, and if you pay your own doctors’ bills, then you should only need health coverage for one basic reason: catastrophic disease or accident for you or your family.  Very few individuals can afford life-saving treatments costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.  So it is to the bad, old insurance companies you have to go to get coverage for “catastrophic.”  That kind of need, by the way, cannot be optional or used promiscuously.

Admittedly, the relationship you have with insurance companies is a little weird.  They hire morbid mathematicians called actuaries whose job it is to figure out how many chances in twenty you have in coming down with a deadly disease and how much that treatment would cost.  And, yes, these insurance companies are in business to make a profit, just as you are in business to make a profit.

But here is the curious thing about insurance companies.  They are betting that you will be healthy.  You are the one betting that you will get sick.  That is why they are often willing to pay for “wellness” visits though you tell your wife one doctor’s appointment every seven years or so is enough.  If you stay well, they can keep the whole of what you send them every month, as is the case with your life and auto and home-owners’ policies.  Furthermore, if they do not offer you a good deal, then you can go to another insurance company—that is, if the federal and state governments had not already put massive restrictions on the health insurance business.  Rather than being pilloried by self-serving politicians, the insurance companies should be freed up to do what they do best: offer good catastrophic coverage at reasonable prices.

If you insist on being responsible only for your own health in this brave new era of responsibility, you shall, of course, be asked about the millions yet uninsured.  This exploitation of your humanity is starting to wear thin.  In remembering Medicaid and CHIP and the 1200 free clinics in the nation, you cannot help but ask, if the government cannot take care of those they have already promised to with billions of American taxpayers’ dollars, what makes them think they could take care of you who are quite capable of paying your own way without coercion, interference, or, worst of all, help.

If you are allowed — and who, exactly, should be telling you, you are not? — to pursue your own health, your own medical care, and your own health coverage by the lights of your own reason, self-knowledge, and love of life, you will end up with better results in all three.  So will everyone else.  To this end, the Founding Fathers of this country held that free and independent men and women would best be able to pursue and to achieve their own health, wealth, and happiness by looking after themselves, and such individual responsibility would achieve the common good.

Barack Obama​ and the Democrats claim that they can provide your health and happiness better than you can by forcing us all into sharing our separate healths together.  Fortunately, in a democracy, you get to decide.

Originally published on on October 17, 2009.

What the Republican Pledge Needs: A Few More First Principles

The Republican Party’s 2010 Agenda, “A Pledge to America,” is in many ways an impressive document.  It contains both principles and policies that answer the call for a more accountable government in Washington.  It is particularly strong on the health-care issue.  Should the Republicans succeed in repealing ObamaCare, it will be rightly regarded as one of the most crucial victories in stopping the growth of the progressive welfare state.

As I look over the Republican Pledge, however, I am not convinced that it has all the power and principle it needs to change the direction of politics in Washington and actually to return the federal government to the limited—though important—role envisioned by the Founding Fathers.  Is, for example, cutting “government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels” a temporary tactic or a permanent goal?  The ultimate purpose of the Tea Party movement would appear to be not just a return to the status quo ante Obama, but actually a restoration of the first principles of government as understood by the Founding Fathers and as practiced in this nation for a century and a half.

While holding those elected in 2010 to their own Pledge, we should urge Republicans and concerned citizens to press beyond the necessary tactics for winning elections in 2010 and consider a more complete set of first principles that will return government to its more limited place in our lives.  To this end, I offer the following.

Human beings are individuals.  They are born not into a class or a race or a special interest but into the human community.  The American ideal has always been to treat individuals not as belonging to preferred classes or groups but as individuals.  Attempts to categorize and hyphenate individuals, particularly for political purposes, are far from being American.

Human beings are endowed with considerable capacities.  They have the capacity to think, to work, to provide for themselves, and to pursue their own happiness.  Therefore, they have the ability and the responsibility to govern themselves, both in the individual and the collective sense.  Policies that treat human beings as wards of the state rather than as human beings capable of taking care of and governing themselves are not American.

Human beings are endowed with inalienable rights.  These rights include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the protection of private property.  These rights come from God, not from government.

The chief end of government is to protect individual, inalienable rights.  Rights are not to be confused with entitlements.  A person’s rights are derived from being human, from the individual’s effort and talents, and from the self-evident principle that a person might use or save or give away his property as he sees fit.  Entitlements are alleged benefits that government transfers from one class of people to another under the guise of “welfare” or “care” or “security” but usually for political gain.  Government possesses neither life nor liberty nor happiness nor health and therefore cannot grant rights, only protect them.  For the first century and a half of the American experiment, the government mostly protected citizens’ rights.  For almost the last century, there has been a deliberate conflation of and confusion between rights and entitlements.  The restoration of sound government in our time means a return of government to protecting rights rather than providing entitlements.

The protection of private property is particularly important in America.  The American Revolution resulted in large part from a distant government’s cavalier attitude to property rights.  James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, described the purpose of the government in protecting property as follows:

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to an uniformity of interests.  The protection of these faculties, is the first object of government.

In light of Madison’s ideas of constitutional government, contemporary attacks upon “the rich” used to pass progressive (i.e. unequal and often confiscatory) tax and fiscal policies are particularly insidious.  The “diversity in the faculties of men” will unavoidably result in some amassing considerable wealth.  The laws of political economy tell us that a rising tide, however, lifts all boats.  The more opportunity “the rich” have in investing capital in productive enterprise, the higher those boats will rise.

The American Founding Fathers framed a government of enumerated powers.  Those powers are enumerated in the Constitution of the United States.  The Constitution is not an “optional” document or a set of suggestions.  It is the supreme law of the land.  When the Constitution is found to fail in some particular, there is a possibility for amendment.  For the better part of a century, lawmakers at the federal level have regularly neglected the Constitution in order to adopt policies they regarded as “necessary.”  It is time that all policies adopted during that time and that are still in place be re-examined to determine whether they are constitutional.  To do so is not an academic or historical exercise but the responsibility of everyone elected to federal office.

The American Constitution is based on the separation of powers.  In that separation the legislative branch of government is responsible for making the laws.  For much of the last century, the legislative branch has absolved itself of that responsibility by passing big pieces of legislation that are no more than wish lists and then allowing unelected experts in the executive branch to interpret and add to the law as they see fit.  Citizens must obey laws that they do not even know exist and for which their elected representatives did not vote.  The U. S. Congress must gain accountability over the executive departments lest we become the reverse of what the Founders intended: a government of men, not of laws.

The American Constitution is also based on the principle of federalism.  The Founders consistently stated that the national government would attend to national objects, foreign policy and defense being the most important, and that state and local governments would take care of smaller, domestic concerns.  Today there is virtually no activity the federal government does not regulate or fund.  This country needs a fresh discussion about which proper objects of government should be the province of the federal government and which powers should be left to the states or to the people.

One purpose of the federal government is to “promote the general welfare.”  General refers to the people as a whole, not to select groups or to specific geographic locations.  Whereas, for example, the national highway system promotes the general welfare and is an implied power found in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, the practice of passing pieces of legislation that appropriate funds for local “infrastructure” projects and likewise conveniently serve as pork to get members of Congress reelected is clearly a violation of the Constitution and the public trust.  State and local projects should be paid for by state and local governments that are more accountable to smaller electorates.

Private enterprise is just that: private.  Success or failure in business is and should be the result of profits and losses in the free market.  Government entrance into the private sector distorts market incentives, shields some selected businesses or industries from the discipline of the market, disfavors other businesses and causes them to invest in politics rather than in products, flouts consumer choice, and often amounts to corporate welfare.  The last few decades have given rise to an incredible governmental intrusion into private markets.  The government should divest itself of its holdings in and influence on the auto, financial, and mortgage markets lest America become another failed state-run economy.  Further, the federal government should cease doling out incentives to certain companies or industries, a practice belonging to the age of mercantilism, not that of free enterprise.

Job creation is not a legitimate function of government.  Individual entrepreneurs and workers know their own talents, investors know their own interests, and consumers know their own tastes better than government ever will.  The task of government is to attend to functions only government could or should do.  Every time government attempts to create a job, it takes productive capital—and therefore jobs—from the more responsive private sector.  So-called stimulus bills stifle economy, invention, and necessary competition and thereby slow natural recovery from the troughs of the business cycle.  Elected officials in government should show restraint during downturns and trust markets—which is to say, human beings acting in their own interests—to overcome momentary economic setbacks.  Otherwise the government creates long-term debt, the greatest obstacle to real recovery.

The current tax code is the result not only of bad economics but a complete ignorance of basic arithmetic.  The captious claim that “the rich” do not pay “their fair share” is pure politics and pure fiction.  A simple word problem exposes the fallacy.  If the federal tax rate on incomes were 10%, the individual who made $250,000 per year would pay ten times more than the individual who made $25,000.  In fact, the first person would pay in taxes the same amount that the second person made in income.  Would, however, the first person receive more from the government in services?  Would he be ten times more protected from foreign enemies?  Would he drive on roads that were ten times smoother?  Would he get his mail ten times faster?  Obviously not.  Therefore, the person taxed less receives the same amount of government services as the person who pays ten times more in taxes.  By no stretch of the imagination can the wealthier person be said not to pay his fair share.  A flat tax, therefore, already redistributes “goods.”  Yet in America we do not have a flat or a fair tax system.  Our taxes punish the industrious.  In federal income taxes alone, the head of household making $250,000 will pay over $64,000 in income taxes, to say nothing of state and local taxes, social security, Medicare, and so on.  The head of household making $25,000 might pay $3152 in taxes, but could pay nothing because of deductions.  Even if the second person paid the stated amount of his tax bracket, the first person would pay twenty times more.  The reality is that half of the nation pays no federal income tax apart from social security and Medicare.  The greater the number of people put onto the roles of non-tax-payers, the further our politics will become one of class warfare: that is, the property of the few will be used as the bait of demagogic politics.  That is plainly not American.  America needs a flat tax that applies to taxpayers equally.

The primary institution for civilization, education, acculturation, and basic human care is the family.  The stronger the family, the more likely children will reach the full extent of their human capacities for thought, work, happiness, and love.  The stronger families are in America as a whole, the less government—at every level—becomes necessary to repair the damage of familial and social breakdown.  Any governmental policy therefore that leads to the further erosion of the family—to include the subsidizing of having and bringing up children out of wedlock—must be regarded as a long-term social disaster and therefore eliminated.

The Founding Fathers believed in limited government because they believed in the almost unlimited capacities—God willing—of free, self-governing individuals living under the rule of law.  The last hundred years of so-called progressive politics has led us astray by trying to hoodwink us into believing that human beings are less than they are and that government is more than it can ever be.  It is time for the true statesmen of this century to re-fit our government into the framework designed by the Founding Fathers and to remind those in that government the truth stated by President Ronald Reagan:

“We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around.”

Originally published on on October 2, 2010